Remembering This Albany, NY WWI Hero Ahead of Memorial Day
This coming Monday, May 30th, is Memorial Day in the United States. While it's often an off-day for most employees, it's so, so much more important than that. It's a day dedicated completely to remembering those who have served and lost their lives, as well as thanking those armed forces members who are still with us.
It's also an opportunity to remember the great stories across American history: the moments, and the people, that truly embodied what it means to me a member of the United States Armed Forces.
One such person is Henry Johnson, who grew up in Albany, and is posthumously remembered as one of America's greatest heroes from World War I.
Remembering Henry Johnson, United States Army, and His WWI Heroism
William Henry Johnson, known to most as Henry Johnson, was born in South Carolina, but moved to Albany, New York as a young teenager. He worked as a redcap porter at Albany's Union Station as a kid, according to reports, before enlisting in the U.S. Military in 1917.
He originally joined the all-black National Guard, which would transition into the 369th Infantry Regiment, based in Harlem in New York City. This group of soldier would later go on to become The Harlem Hellfighters, a group in which Johnson became a prominent figure.
Johnson, as well as his 369th brethren, dealt with a tremendous amount of discrimination from white members of the U.S. Military. Johnson was originally not allowed to participate in combat training after enlisting, having been relegated to labor service duties instead. Once he was finally able to participate in a combat capacity, members of the other regiments claimed they would not fight alongside Johnson.
Johnson and his regiment would end up being welcomed into the ranks of the French Army, a fellow member of the Allies in World War I. His regiment was assigned to the Argonne Forest in France, and it was there that Johnson embraced his heroism for France, the United States, and all of the Allied Forces.
Johnson and a small group of his compatriots were attacked by a few dozen German soldiers. It was Johnson, singlehandedly, who used grenades, the butt of his rifle, a bolo knife and his bare fists to fight off the attacking forces. He killed four German soldiers, wounded many, rescued a member of the Hellfighters from capture, and despite sustaining 21 injuries, caused the Germans to retreat.
It was then, and there, that Johnson earned the nickname Black Death.
For his efforts in the war, he was awarded a Croix de guerre from the French in 1918, the first U.S. soldier to be awarded such an honor in World War I. It wasn't until 2015, however, when U.S. President Barack Obama awarded him with a Medal of Honor.
Sadly, reports claim that Johnson contracted tuberculosis, which left him with severe long-term health issues. He passed away in 1929, at the age of just 36. At that time, African-American soldiers were not being properly honored for their efforts in the victory of World War I, and Johnson died in obscurity in Washington, D.C.
It's 2022, however, and now, we can more properly honor a man who is one of the greatest heroes in American combat history. In the Capital Region and beyond, keep Henry Johnson in your memories this coming Memorial Day Weekend.